It’s that time again!
How are you enjoying your December? So far mine’s been pretty good, but I’m always in a good mood when I’m hittin’ the streets, savin’ lives… or just shuttling people between goddamn hospitals. But I digress! We’re approaching the end of the year, and since nothing incredible is likely to appear between now and the end of the year, we may as well do a GotY list. Remember these are all opinions – if you disagree, that’s cool. Also recall that I’m predominately a PC gamer, so Mario can go to hell. That said, it’s been a really slim year this year in terms of gaming. This list is a hard one to do, and I’ve really had to think about what games I actually played that I can remember. Anyway, let’s begin.
10: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
If you’ve ever wondered what playing a game narrated by a man who is effectively making up bullshit as he goes along, then this is probably the game for you. Although it’s a straight-forward linear shooter, Gunslinger is incredibly entertaining and also quite cheap for the price. The game’s levels change as Silas Greaves keeps changing his story, throwing in all the Western tropes and big names into a game that’s as fun to play as it is compelling. It isn’t particularly long, but it’s actually the perfect length for a game like this – it never outstays its welcome, it’s just as long as it needs to be and no more (like Portal). The story has a nice twist at the end too, just in case you thought it was just a cover for shooting outlaws. In a time when a game apparently needs to have an ‘open world’ to be entertaining, Gunslinger reminds us that the linear, story-driven shooter is still just as fun as it was in the early to mid 2000s. The trick is to actually make it interesting and fun to play, not doing the same thing over and over again (Yes, Call of Duty, I’m glaring at you).
9: Papers, Please
Never before has playing a paper-pusher been so much fun. Well maybe ‘fun’ isn’t the right word – more like ‘engaging’. The oppressive atmosphere, simplistic graphics, and overarching plot forcing you to balance your own interests, the state’s interests, and the immigrant sob stories made for a compelling game. It was so compelling that I found myself trying to memorise information and developing a systematic approach, which would promptly break when apparently arbitrary new rules and papers were introduced for the next shift. It’s a continuous escalation of papers and excuses, enough to drive you insane. Each person you let through causes a wave of anxiety, waiting for that dot-matrix printer noise signalling that you missed something. Multiple endings, some memorable characters, and gameplay that’s less ‘play’ and more ‘work’, Papers Please is one of the best indie games of the year. Now: Papers, please.
8: Rogue Legacy
The premise is pretty simple – platform hack’n’slash with a bit of rogue-like elements thrown in: randomly generated levels with a general goal of killing several bosses. The majority of run-throughs are little more than attempts to accumulate as much gold as possible to give your next descendent a better shot at taking down the enemy. From there you descend into a spiral of addiction, trying to get just a bit more gold to upgrade something or other to give yourself another shot at a boss. Mechanically simple, easy to pick up but challenging in many places, Rogue Legacy is pretty damn good. It’s also fairly cheap too, and well worth checking out if you haven’t already. There isn’t much else to say.
7: ARMA 3
I’ve been fairly unkind to Arma 3, namely because I’ve lost my patience with the series. Bohemia Interactive Studios have consistently failed to fix three things that piss me off with the entire series, dating back to Operation Flashpoint: Crap combat AI, crap driving AI, and crap performance. Oddly, BIS have managed to make some decent strides in the last of these two categories, though the former remains elusive apparently. It’s weird, because plenty of other devs manage to create dynamic AI that doesn’t get confused by a tree-lined road, so maybe they should just call in help. I don’t know. In any event though Arma 3’s gold release, along with the first episode of its campaign, are actually pretty solid… for an Arma game, which is like saying Stalin’s second year in office was better than his first because he petted a cat for a few minutes. It’s actually playable, and you can get through the first episode without too many issues (unexpected squad destruction notwithstanding). So well done BIS, I guess. You’re finally starting to reach a level of quality I thought impossible from you.
6: Bioshock Infinite
Although I like the game, I definitely don’t give it this spot because of its gameplay. If anything, it should probably be lower – Bioshock Infinite commits many things I’d consider sins in FPS games. The gunplay is repetitive, enemies are all bullet sponges that seem to only increase their ability to take damage as time goes on, arenas are obviously telegraphed and there are plenty of times when the game gets bogged down in its boring combat. I’ll give it a spot for two reasons. Firstly, as stated extensively in this post, there’s not much to pick from. Secondly, Elizabeth. The AI sidekick not only works well, but had decent character development too. It’s a common theme in games to either place you entirely on your own, or to give you throw-away AI team mates that effectively do nothing. Elizabeth was like Alyx in Episode 1 – more of a help than a hindrance, with plenty of personality injected to transform it from a helpful gameplay mechanic to more of a companion. Now they just need to stop making crappy combat environments and we’ll be okay again.
5: Civ V: Brave New World
An expansion pack? Yeah, that represents the sad state of affairs with gaming. Civilization V wasn’t very well liked on release but the expansion packs have really boosted the game. Brave New World helps fix some of the late-game drag that has afflicted the series since forever. It expands the modern era and adds in the United Nations, making diplomacy and city states a lot more entertaining. Other mechanics like arachnology and culture help transform some of the more basic mechanics into something more entertaining. Also trading was finally changed from an abstract concept into something physical, letting me live out my dream of becoming a terror to the merchant ships in a long war. Does exactly what it says on the tin, can’t complain with that.
4: Rocksmith 2014
No, seriously. I’m actually a fan of the original Rocksmith, but 2014 just improves on it in so many different ways. It’s designed to teach you how to play a few songs – I hesitate to say ‘teaches you how to play guitar’ because when it comes to technique there’s no substitute for an actual teacher. If you can follow along with a rhythm game though you can bash out a few songs with this method. Yes, yes, it doesn’t teach you musical theory and blah blah who freakin’ cares? I don’t want to write my own songs, I just want to play Space Oddity by David Bowie. For that sort of rote-learning playing experience, which is probably all that most interested parties really want, it’s not a bad pack. Regular content releases from a reasonable selection of genres helps round out the package. No real complaints here… except for forcing you to use that Real Tone cable. Now that’s bullshit.
3: Grand Theft Auto 5
I’m cheating by adding a console game, but hell, what else is there to pick? Big city, interesting storylines, well done characters… now release it on PC without the engine being a piece of shit and I’ll buy it again.
2: Rise of the Triad
I’ll be blunt and say that RoTT probably doesn’t really deserve the number 2 slot, but I’m putting it up here purely because it proved a point: that classic gameplay transplanted into the modern age isn’t necessarily the best idea. For what it’s worth, RoTT 2013 is a fun game. It’s effectively a fan-made reproduction of the original 90s classic, with modern graphics and not much else. Even many of the levels are direct 1:1 layout copies, just with reimagined visuals and clutter to make it feel modern. The weapons all function as they used to, the powerups are all in, and it’s basically just the same game in a new skin. It was horrible on initial release because there were way too many draw calls – the developers chose a very performance-heavy method of level design which made it easy to make levels, but taxed even high end hardware. It’s still not perfect but it’s much more playable today. That said, plenty of people didn’t like it. The maps are large and occasionally confusing, much like the original’s mazes with textures that all look the same. The gameplay is straightforward “Kill guys, get keys, flip switches, get to exit” without any variation. The worst sin committed are the frustrating platforming sections. The engine simply isn’t suited to it, and combined with the choppy framerate most of them are just too difficult and frustrating, demanding Jedi-like reflexes and precision. With all that said, it’s basically the 90s ported to the 2010s, and I’ll give them credit for that.
1: XCOM: Enemy Within
It’s rather telling and perhaps a little sad that I have to pick an expansion pack (remember those?) as a game of the year, but this is the game I’ve had the most fun with this year. XCOM: EW is the perfect Firaxis expansion pack – it just adds more stuff to change up the gameplay mechanics and manages to stand on its own two feet as a proper expansion. The new gameplay options for augmenting troops gives you an edge but the game remains balanced. Actually the difficulty probably took a climb since it expects you to augment troops, and the new Meld recovery mechanic forces you to abandon the slow Overwatch creep forward if you want to keep your troops upgraded. The addition of a new enemy faction, new set piece missions (including one of the tensest missions I’ve ever played in a strategy game ever) and new maps just makes the game bigger and better. While the end-game remains the same, the journey there made it well worth a second play-through. It’s just a brilliant expansion pack that took the base game and added more stuff. The people who basically wanted them to turn it back into 90s XCOM were always going to be disappointed, but it’s a separate game – asking for that is missing the point (plus you can go play Xenonauts… which will probably never get finished at this rate). In short, it’s awesome. Developers take note – this is how you do an expansion pack. Keep your little 3-mission DLC, Firaxis know how it should be done.
And some of the worst…
5: Indies in General
A lot of people were calling this a great year for indie games, but I’m not seeing it. A lot of them are mechanically simple games that rely heavily on their artistic flair to differentiate them, or rely on annoying ‘enigmatic’ (borderline confused) storylines to try to disguise their true lack of innovation. There are lots of indie games in development with promise, like Maia or Limit Theory (I can’t wait for that one!), and I was actually tempted to include Kerbal Space Program but it’s not quite at that stage yet. Other titles like Xenonauts keep slipping further and further away, despite infusions of cash. I’m actually fairly disappointed in the indies this year – there’s a focus on cloning popular concepts, or too much of a focus on ‘art games’ (like Gone Home) which are praised purely because they’re different, not necessarily because they’re mechanically good. Perhaps it’s a reflection on how stale AAA gaming has gotten when we’re praising an art game just for not being Call of Duty. In either event, I wasn’t overly impressed with their offerings either. So much promise is coming out of Kickstarter, but 2013 wasn’t the year for delivery.
4: Democracy 3
Utter shit. The end. Oh okay, to go into a little bit more depth: I actually did have a review penned for this one, but I realised that it was basically the review I did for Democracy 2 but never released, because it boils down to one thing – it’s boring. And I don’t mean boring as in politics are boring, but it’s boring because the mechanics are ridiculous and consist entirely of fiddling with some sliders. Plus the game basically subscribes to the ridiculous stereotype of ‘Anybody who isn’t far-left wing is the devil’ which is a joke. Barely any gameplay to speak of, barely different from its predecessor, and way overpriced for what it is. Complete bullshit.
3: SimCity 2013
I actually enjoyed SimCity a lot more than everybody else, probably because I was a lot more tolerant of the teething issues (although I still maintain that what happened didn’t have to happen). But it’s no less of a disappointment that the return of a much-loved series, which showed a lot of promise, was broken in so many ways. I liked the fact that things like healthcare, transit and fire coverage weren’t arbitrary circles, but were physical objects with little ambulances or buses that really did carry out their task. Unfortunately that relied heavily on having a traffic simulation that wasn’t broken, and it was broken on release. It was so broken that it made larger cities practically impossible to manage, since the traffic would build up to stupid proportions, clogging the major arterials with no way in hell to fix it. Many of these issues have been resolved and the game is a somewhat different beast to what it was back when it was released, but first impressions are everything in the fickle world of PC gaming.
2: Gone Home
This ‘game’ pisses me off in many ways. Not because it’s barely a game, nor because its principle storyline is a terrible cliché with shitty, unconvincing delivery. The reason it pisses me off is because everybody fauns all over it like it’s the second coming of Gabe Newell. It’s overpriced for what it is – a very short, voyeuristic trip through a house with the player as a character that may as well be anybody for all the difference it makes, exploring a boring, stereotypical lesbian teenage love story at the expense of a far more interesting one. Rifling through the house looking at all of the debris of family life back in the 90s was sort of fun, but being shoved through the teenage drama written with all the subtlety of a wet fish to the face detracted significantly from the experience. It’s borderline incompetent with its storytelling, except for the subplot revolving around the father and his uncle. The plot there was far more interesting and was actually delivered with a bit of subtlety, which shows that the devs apparently do know how to write a story. Why then were we forced into a bullshit teenage love drama? Oh right, because a lesbian teenage drama strikes the right chord to get noticed or something, instead of people just recognising it as pedestrian stereotypical nonsense. The empty house with the Emergency Broadcast System warning invites mystery and a vague sense of fear and anxiety – the lights are all on but nobody’s home. Some rooms are a mess. Did they evacuate quickly? No, they didn’t – the parents just went away, and the sister pissed off to meet her girlfriend. The. Freakin’. End. Rubbish. Absolute rubbish.
1: X: Rebirth
Egosoft needed to do one thing to the X3 games to make them infinitely better: completely rip out that archaic UI. They did that, but they made it worse. What was a mess of nested menus with token mouse control turned into a series of nested menus, just with less options to reflect less functionality. To fix the game they should have just added in an RTS map for ship commands, but they didn’t do that, did they? No, they screwed it up even more by simply removing the available commands you could issue. With that said, I understand that this isn’t a sequel to X3 in terms of mechanics, it’s basically a new start for the series (which should have removed some of the endemic issues), and I’m not even concerned that I only have one ship under my personal control. But X: Rebirth made it harder to just do everything. Trading is unnecessarily difficult and limited to large trading ships that take forever to do anything. ‘Fleet commands’ have been limited to three options: Follow, mine rocks, and jump me to this sector. The promised system of intelligent agents that would remove a lot of the micromanagement is shallow and just feels like removing options rather than actually fixing problems. Finally, it’s still horribly broken – it should never have been released in a state where trading flat out doesn’t work, the combat AI has trouble navigating stations, and the game frequently crashes. The latest patches have helped a lot, and pretty much every X game on release has been the same way (save for X3:TC and X3:AP which are basically expansions), but Christ Egosoft, you simultaneously identified problems with X3 and yet failed to fix them while introducing entirely new ones. I still have hope for a playable game, since there are glimpses of the expanded Freelancer-style gameplay (which is what I’ve wanted since Freelancer was released) but there’s a long way to go.
Predictions for 2014!
SteamBox doesn’t make much of a difference. Everybody seems to think that the SteamBox is going to change the world, but I don’t see it happening. It’s a borderline-pointless product that clearly isn’t going to make a difference to current PC gamers, and likely won’t be competitive enough with the consoles to tempt them over either. On top of that, I remain unconvinced that SteamOS will mature significantly in 2014 to the point where it’s a viable replacement for Windows when it comes to gaming.
Windows 9 details appear. Probably a given, but every list needs a safe bet. Alternatively, Windows 8.2 appears. Microsoft have stepped up with a more rapid release schedule, so there’s a decent chance we’ll find out more about the next iteration of Windows in 2014.
Windows Phone gains more ground. There’s been a slight surge in Windows Phone uptake lately, and there’s even a bit more in terms of app support. It’s still woefully inadequate and runs a very distant third to iOS and Android, but 2013 wasn’t a bad year for the suffering platform, so hopefully it’ll continue to pick up. If the big names move, it might tempt enough people to follow suit. Oddly enough, I’ve seen two WP8 devices in the wild in the last 5 weeks… which is exactly 2 more than I’ve seen in the past 5 years.
Half Life 3 details leak. Actually I’m just kidding, we all know it’s never being made. But what if it did appear?
Apple releases new products, none are ground-breaking. Expect a new iPhone and iPad, neither of which will be particularly exciting. No doubt they’ll have an automatic rectal exam wand or some other ridiculous attachment, but that’ll probably be it.
Xbox One closes the gap. Right now the PS4 is clearly the better choice over the Xbox One – it’s cheaper, apparently more powerful, and seems to have better 1080p support. That said, I think the Xbox One will close the gap. The issues seem more likely to be software in nature, and the early games in a console’s release cycle are usually pretty bad. I’m taking the ‘wait and see’ approach.